BOOK: Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal (2007)

Here’s something from United States history I had never heard before: during World War I, the U.S. government arrested over 20,000 women suspected of spreading STDs to American soldiers. Of those arrested, over 13,000 tested positive and were held against their will for months at a time. They were not allowed to contact their families — not even to let their mothers know they were still alive. To friends and family left behind, they had simply vanished into thin air.

Even worse, they were threatened with legal action, but never actually given lawyers or taken before a judge. Instead, for months or even years, they were subjected to brutal and humiliating medical treatments, as well as the open disdain of many of the men and women put in charge of “helping” them. Though many of the women held contracted their STDs from the very soldiers they themselves were accused of infecting, the men suffered no sanctions whatsoever — it was always assumed the women were to blame. Arrested on dubious charges (in some cases, women were picked up and carted off merely for wearing a dress someone found too “provocative” in an area where there happened to be soldiers stationed), held without legal proceedings, and subjected to humiliation-based abuse — gee, sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

And it is that undercurrent of modern-day relevancy that makes this novel all the more compelling. It tells the fictional-but-based-on-fact story of a young woman, 17 year-old Frieda, who ran away from home after her oppressive mother attempted to marry her off to a man twice her age. Frieda hits the big city and quickly gets a job at a local department store, wrapping parcels for customers of the ladies undergarments section. Many of the women Frieda meets and befriends are what were called “charity girls” at the time. Young and often more than a bit naive, charity girls would trade their attentions and affections to men for gifts or entrance fees to local dances. They weren’t prostitutes, exactly — not promising sex for money, but instead offered their company and perhaps a kiss or quick feeling-up for jewelry, meals, or evenings out. In war-time, poverty was fierce, and these young girls just wanted to be able to continue to enjoy some of the niceties of life.  It seemed, to them, a small price to pay for some happiness.  Though Frieda isn’t quite a charity girl herself as the story opens, she’s begun flirting with it, and when she meets a charming young soldier named Felix, it doesn’t end up taking much for him to successfully seduce her.

Felix disappears, and a few weeks later, Frieda is greeted at work by a stern woman who tells her Felix has tested positive for an STD and the government knows Frieda is to blame for it. She threatens Frieda, but doesn’t end up taking her away — not yet. Nevertheless, Frieda’s boss knows who the woman is and what she does, and he wastes no time in firing Frieda, leaving her starving and penniless within a few short weeks. Desperate, Frieda scrapes together enough money for a train ticket, and heads off in search of Felix, who has written her promising to help if he can.

On her way to the base, though, Frieda is tricked into trusting another young soldier who claims to know Felix and offers to take her to him. Instead, he forces her into an abandoned building and attempts to rape her. Just as she has finished fighting him off, however, she is grabbed by another man who is convinced she’s there to prostitute herself to the first soldier she lays eyes on. He takes her to an old brothel that has been converted into one of the aforementioned detention centers for STD-positive women. And so her months of agony begin.

This is a truly shocking tale, made all the more horrific not only by the fact this actually happened, but by the fact most of us, I’d wager, are completely UNAWARE this ever happened. And while I will say I didn’t think this novel was particularly well-written, nor did I find the characters terribly three-dimensional, the content of the story itself is what makes it a book not to be missed. Stick this one on your list, everyone. You should know about this. Recommended!


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